commuter train

June 16th, 2008

There’s nothing so annoying as missing your train. Usually this means waiting for the next one, which in many US cities is no small feat. The schedule is erratic, the trains infrequent. You could wait twenty minutes for the next train. Twenty minutes too late for a meeting? Too bad.

The train arteries themselves are haphazard, as though designed to inconvenience. The streetcar that connects one train system with another is notoriously inefficient. A ten minute ride can take twenty, depending on whether a driver took a day off and forgot to tell the boss or a branch has fallen on the tracks somewhere in the system. Once you disembark from the southbound train system, good luck finding a bus, shuttle, or taxi to bring you to your final destination. Buses run even less frequently than trains, and often in no relation to where you need to go.

What sort of red-blooded, do-it-yourself American rides a train anyway? Americans have historically cherished their right to do as they please with minimal government interference. Formerly the pride of the United States, trains are now viewed as an abdication of that right. Driving a car, you are the captain of your own destiny. Riding a train, you’re at the mercy of arbitrary schedules and the egalitarian nature of public transportation. The guy sitting next to you might conduct noisy business meetings on his cellphone or emit the musty sharp odor of someone who hasn’t bathed in a very long time. But driving a car could mean getting rear-ended, or worse, and more likely, stuck in the molasses flow of traffic that drains the life force drip… by… i n t e r m i n a b l e … drip.

Fifteen minutes to the next train. I scan the magazine stand, a shrine to celebrity. The Economist peeks out from the bottom rack. Scratch that, a shrine to money in all its forms. I queue up instead at the little take-out coffee shop: coffee, scones, sandwiches, bagels all ready to go in time for the train. I get a croissant and line up for the train.

I board early and take a seat near the window. It’s a grey day for June. The sky is dour and frumpy, scowling like a Victorian school teacher. I bite into my croissant, its paper wrapping crinkles. The croissant is buttery with an airy texture, but the dough is a little too dense. It’s not quite as flaky as it ought to be, and it isn’t at all warm. I wonder if some Parisienne across the world eats hastily purchased croissants on the train. Do they sell croissants at the gare? Do people still take the time to sit down for their croissant and café au lait? Looking out the window at the dreary skies, I think of warm, buttery croissant and café au lait as the mid-summer sun rises from its dewy slumber.

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